Sizzling Sicily

Part I – Palermo: Cure for the Late Winter Blues

By Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo © Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

Entrance to archaeology musuem

We’d had it with winter. We needed to get away. We hadn’t been to Sicily for years. It had to be warmer than Portland.

We leave Maine in an ice storm and arrive in Sicily to 65-degree weather. Our hotel is in the busy center of Sicily’s largest city, Palermo. Everything is green or getting green, and a few flowers are actually blooming. We have a balconied room overlooking the Mediterranean.

The rugged shoreline park across the street is well used by cyclists, joggers, soccer players, pedestrians and young mothers. We read the amorous graffiti scrawled along the breakwater — “Tony & Giada,” “Ti amo Erika,” “Dona la mia anima (my soul),” which puts us in a good mood. There are little islands to the right, and a jetty to the left on which fishermen stand motionless, looking cold. The temperature has dropped a few degrees since we arrived. The wind coming off the water is chilly, but mild compared to what we left in Portland.

We find the Trattoria da Salvo nearby, a grilled fish joint that is literally in the street. The grill is on the sidewalk and tables are set up in an alley. The menu lists antipasti, first, second and third plates — all fish.  We order the house specialty, “Grigliata,” which consists of several grilled langoustines, a generous heap of squid, a lovely whole orata that resembles a sea bass. Delicious.

Fish grill guy

The house wine is light and tastes as if it has bubbled up out of a spring. No matter that it is served in plastic cups. Guys are milling around, and the timpani of goodfellas is relaxing and amusing. The nighttime view of the second floor apartment across the street is of painted ceilings and ornate moldings from another era. We are relaxed and happy and declare our first day in Sicily a success.

Giant ficus in Garibaldi park

Palermo: Garden City

Escaping a harsh Maine winter and landing in Sicilian spring feels magical. We resolve to spend a lot of time outdoors—no museums or castles yet. Palermo is called the “garden city” because of its many parks and public gardens. Apart from some private villas, city gardens are open to the public and blooming. We decide to check out a few.

Nearby, we find the Villa Giulia on Via Lincoln, a beautiful park with lovely statues in a semicircle around a central fountain. Classically symmetrical, it is ringed with beautiful orange trees studded with very bitter oranges. My husband found that out the hard way. A great place to spend a few tranquil hours.

Next door is the Orto Botanico (botanical gardens), with two mysterious sphinxes flanking the main entrance. The centuries-old gardens include an impressive greenhouse and exotic plant species such as bamboo, palm, coffee, sycamore and papaya. We see our first Sicilian “monster” fig tree, Ficus magnolioides, with mysterious and creepy aerial roots, supposedly more than 100 years old. In a round, multi-tiered pond are several species of lotus and water lily. We think the Orto Botanico has a wild Sicilian charm. Admission is cheap at one euro.

Exploring the Castel ursino

Also in historic Palermo, the Villa Garibaldi has exotic plants and another “monster” ficus, busts of Italian renaissance heroes and fountains. As typical of most Sicilian parks these days, there is one entrance and exit, with a “doorman” to enhance safety of monster fig admirers.

Over lunch at Il Fenice  (the Phoenix) across the street, we enjoy bruschetta and the local specialty, pasta “Norma,” with eggplant and tomatoes. We can see the funky giant fig through the windows. It feels like we are dining under the trees in the Garibaldi Gardens.

There are plenty more parks and gardens, including the famous Giardino Inglese, or English Garden, which we decide to save for next time. Palermo’s many art, archeological museums, and cultural activities beckon, and we decide it is time to head indoors.

Mosaic in Castel Ursino

Art and Culture

The Archeological Museum is an incredible storehouse of history, from cave drawings to a 2,500-year-old reconstructed Greek temple. The inner courtyard is very special.  Of course there are cases of hyena’s teeth, arrowheads, and a daunting number of antique anchors, but for students of history, archaeology or sexy Greek pottery, this quirky and distinguished collection is definitely worth a visit.

An offbeat modern art museum in an old castle, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna also gets raves. The paintings and sculpture represent a diverse cross-section Italian modern art. There are modern masterpieces by well-known Italian and Sicilian artists. Their collection from the 20s and 30s is mind blowing. Not to be missed, and perfect for that rainy day.

The Teatro Massimo is home to the Palermo opera and ballet. Its massive Corinthian pillars, enormous staircase and bronze lions impress and intimidate. Enormous cast-iron candelabra illuminate the piazza in front. Recently restored, the interior seats well over 1,000 beneath its remarkable bronze cupola. It is said to have almost perfect acoustics. Don’t miss the Pompeian Room and the Coat of Arms Room with decorations in deep Pompeian red.

Home to the Sicilian Symphonic Orchestra, the Politeama Garibaldi Theatre is a massive circular building in shades of blue and ochre. Striking paintings on a Pompeian red background surround the columned exterior. Visitors enter through a huge arch surrounded by two enormous bronze candelabra. At the very top towers the dramatic bronze Quadriga of Apollo, with two pairs of horses and riders. An unexpected garden delights and surprises.

Olives in market

Sicilian Flavors: Sapore Siciliano

We both love street food and open markets, and the colorful, noisy market in the heart of Palermo’s food district is the source of every incredible dish in this town. We enjoy a long walk through endless stalls selling fish, olives, fruit, meats, fava beans the size of bananas and artichokes still attached to leaves and stems. Our memorable and pungent street tour is capped by a second visit to a street fish grill. This time, the proprietor feeds us raw sea urchin with a demitasse spoon.  We open our mouths like trusting babies and it is heaven. Imagine!

Grilling meat II

PART II – Catania: 48 Hours

We have two days in Catania. We wear a pedometer just for the heck of it and log an overachieving 10,000 steps by lunchtime.  It’s a good thing, because we are eating like two adolescent boys. The street meat in Catania is as delectable as the street fish in Palermo. They grill it right in the road, and once again we are delighted. Today at lunch we chewed the bones of six lamb chops as no self-respecting Italian ever would in public.

Catania is certainly less chaotic than Palermo, and most streets and squares are a good bit cleaner. And Catania has a lot to offer those willing to unveil its historic treasures. Even during our brief visit, we manage to see—and eat—our share.

Artichokes

History and Culture

Catania’s has several ancient amphitheaters. The largest is the Roman Amphitheater built in the second century AD. Its vast underground network of passages and alcoves reminded us of the Roman Coliseum. Wear sensible shoes: I was fooling around along the top and had to be helped down. A smaller amphitheater near Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi was built on top of an early Greek theater. The nearby Odeum is much smaller but amazingly intact as well.

The Ursino Castle was a coastal fortress and is now a museum open to the public. Visitors can walk freely throughout and get as close to the artifacts as they wish. The courtyard is a lovely place to contemplate antiquities and soak up some sun.  A great place to pretend you’re living in the middle ages.

Mosaic in Castel Ursino

The Italians enjoy these sites as much as tourists. They bring their children and grandchildren along to appreciate and share their Italian history. There are no English signs or guides, you have to work for whatever information you get, but it is fun and worth it.

The Duomo or main cathedral is in a lovely square, and the Caffé del Duomo is a great place to sit and do some people watching with a glass of wine or espresso. They also have a colorful drink made with a scoop of granita (fruit puree) and sparkling water.  Don’t drink cappuccino in the afternoon, however, as the Sicilians will not conceal their disdain.

Catania has a multitude of shops concentrated on Via Etnea, its main shopping street. Via Etnea climbs from the Duomo Square toward Mt. Etna, which is in plain view when the air is clear. When we saw it, it was capped with snow.

Working Waterfront

Italian billboard art EMP

The huge open market in Catania stretches for blocks and blocks. Chickens hang naked from hooks, head and all. The meat is glorious here; I wish my friend Nicky at Pat’s Meat Market could see this place. The whole market smells distinctly meaty. It is a great smell. They grind sausage right in the street, yards of glistening pork. It is all very immediate—there is no disconnect between what people eat and where it comes from.

Our afternoon grilled steak was rare, salty and wonderful. Perfectly cooked, sidewalk-style. Amazing. I wish I could stop thinking about it.

We wander along Catania’s working waterfront and see the remains of the Saint Agatha festivities. The patron Saint of Sicily, Saint Agatha rejected amorous advances and was persecuted. Among the tortures she suffered was the cutting off of her breasts, and she is most often depicted carrying them on a platter. The festival involves the biggest candles we have ever seen, beeswax clusters five or six feet tall. Melted yellow wax is puddles in makeshift shrines.

For our last meal, we find a restaurant in the middle of the outdoor market called Trattoria La Paglia. We start with insalata polpo, octopus salad, which tastes as if it has just come out of the Mediterranean—which it has. We enjoy a spaghetti vongole (clams) and the house specialty of pasta frutti di mare with mussels, clams, crab, shrimp and some sea creatures we don’t recognize but consume with gusto.

When in Sicily, please don’t skip dessert. From cassata to torrone to pasta di mandorle, all are wonderful. Our favorite are the sweet and creamy local cannoli. Finished with Sicilian pistachios, they are a decadent native treat.

Photo, old red door Color High res

Arrivederci

There is nothing precious about Sicily. It is loud and occasionally furious, gritty around the edges and maybe even to the core. With all of its complexity, is a nuanced, fascinating place. As for renting a car, there are few traffic lights and fewer stop signs. Our friend rented a car and returned that evening without his mirrors. In a word, Sicily can be rough — at times, incomprehensible. My husband described it as a culture of street law in which everyone knows the rules but you.

In Sicily they do not speak much English, if any, so if you don’t speak Italian, bring a phrase book. We like the little Penguin phrase book. Also bring a guidebook, as this can be a thoroughly daunting place even for experienced travelers. I would even recommend spending an afternoon on one of the red city tour buses to get the lay of the land and to scope things out upon arrival.

The island is a world unto itself. Sicily’s art, archeology, history, folklore, culture, scenery, nature, and of course, great food and wine make it an intriguing and compelling destination. For travelers seeking an authentic experience who enjoy a bit of a challenge, Sicily is for you. You will find strong flavors and attitudes here, plus a beauty and immediacy that can take your breath away. •

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